The Suicide Squad serves as fresh proof that DC’s cinematic endeavor lives its best life out on the dopey fringes. Films like Shazam!, Birds of Prey, and James Gunn’s new-look Squad thrive on the combined jolt of sheer silliness and low expectations, while Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s soul-shriveling cut of Justice League bog and bloat with their own self-seriousness. Gunn, who famously livened up the MCU party with Guardians of the Galaxy, is the perfect mastermind for this subtle reboot of DC’s Dirty Dozen. Where the first Squad was a tantalizing misfire that teased us with spot-on casting and a few good moments, Gunn’s run does a much better job of realizing all that squandered potential.
This is normally the sentence where I warn you beautiful readers about the potential for spoilers, but I’ll go ahead and say it: You can skip the first Suicide Squad and still enjoy this one. Yeah, a few little plot points continue into this film, but there’s nothing that will make you lost and confused. Feel free to stream this one without any guilt.
The film borrows the basic spirit from which both its preceding film and comic book ancestor are built: An assortment of grimy supervillains get sprung from the pokey and pressed into doing a little good for humanity. Deviate from or fail the mission, and the Squad’s Machiavellian overseer (Viola Davis) detonates a chip embedded in their skulls. It’s a fascinating flip on an old social experiment, an examination on what it takes for bad people to turn good.
Our heroic rogue’s gallery is led by Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinneman), a good-hearted military man whose role often resembles that of a lifeguard babysitting a pool of ornery kids. The convicts are headed up by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a mercurial mercenary decked out with cutting-edge weapon tech. Below him is the Peacemaker (Jon Cena), a burly, arrogant killer who believes in peace at any price. Also on the ride are: Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a Portuguese orphan girl who commands a legion of rodents and sports the worst alias in all of comic books; Polka Dot Man (Daniel Dastmalchian), a matricidal maniac who looks like a walking, talking game of Twister; and Nananue (voice of Sylvester Stallone), a dimwitted shark-humanoid who sports a vocabulary of about six words and devours his opponents like a Vegas breakfast buffet.
Despite all these mediocre villains and their mediocre powers, the most important member of this off-kilter kill squad is its biggest wild card: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), still rampaging sans Joker, seems to be on this voyage for the sheer fun of it. No matter how dire things seem to get, Quinn always seems to be a snap away from killing everyone in the room.
That’s a handy attitude, because the Squad runs afoul of some truly nasty people. In the island nation of Corto Maltese, DC’s fictitious banana republic, a sinister experiment has gone terribly wrong: Gaius Grieves, an evil scientist who looks like he has D-cell batteries glued to his bald head, has captured a Starro, a massive, space-faring starfish. Yup, you read that sentence right. It seems that Starro has the ability to render human beings into zombies, and this terrible power could be unleashed on our unsuspecting planet.
If you think all this sounds over the top, you’re absolutely right. But that’s also part of The Suicide Squad‘s shambling charm. The plot grows goofier as it goes along, and the film invites you to fly off the tracks with it. Gunn keeps the vibe wacky and light-hearted, which essentially means these smart-ass characters bust each other in the balls for two-plus hours. Most of the humor falls square into the Deadpool realm of scorching profanity and savvy pop culture riffs. If you laughed during that film, there’s a good chance you will during this one, too.
On a similar subject, there’s no way to avoid discussion of this film without sizing up its immediate predecessor. After all, this isn’t so much a sequel as a course correction: Gunn takes the franchise and reorients it the right way. Most of the actors return, but it’s like everybody tries to bluff through the fact that first movie sucked. Here, Gunn supplies his actors with sharper dialogue, and they oblige him by sinking their teeth into it. An infectious sense of giddy nihilism flows through the entire movie. In the first installment, the good times felt purely mechanical.
Honestly, that might be the secret recipe to all this: The DC movies seem to work best when they get out of their own way, and the fun feels truly organic. That’s why I’m giving a movie with a talking shark and a bug-eyed weasel a higher star rating than anything recent that features Batman or Superman. James Gunn is back in the MCU, where he belongs. Hopefully, the DC people were taking notes while they had him.
132 min. R. HBOMax. (This may be a superhero movie, but that ‘R’ rating is no joke. Parents of younger children should proceed with extreme caution.)